People break up by text message these days, so I’ve been told. Expectant parents announce their pregnancies on Facebook. And when my daughters are home, not a minute goes by without some sort of ping announcing an IM, BBM, tweet, Skype call, email, or text.
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to communicating electronically, but none of those shiny gadgets and apps will ever completely replace face-to-face interaction. At some point, we all need to connect IRL. The problem is that even using the most basic, stripped-down medium available — good old-fashioned face time — there’s no guarantee the message we want to convey is the one that’s actually being received. Throw culture into the mix, and you can see why expats sometimes run into trouble when they venture out in their host countries.
Interculturalist LaRay M. Barna spelled out the hazards in “Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication,” which should be required reading for anyone contemplating expat life. Here’s a snapshot of the six obstacles:
Assumption of similarities
There’s something comforting about the notion that underneath our crazy differences, we’re all just people. And to an extent, I suppose that’s true: we all have the same biological needs and experience similar emotions. But culture is what guides the expression of those needs and emotions, and woe betide the expat who fails to take this into account.
Barna suggests that is a better strategy is to assume those from other cultures have different attitudes and behaviours. That way, our “reactions and interpretations [can] be adjusted to fit what is happening.”
Failing to consider context and multiple shades of meaning, even with something as simple as “yes” and “no,” can lead to problems. “Yes” can mean “no” in cultures where an outright refusal would mean a loss of face. “No” can mean “I’m being polite by refusing your offer, but if you ask me again I’ll accept graciously.” If you don’t understand the cultural context, the words themselves won’t tell the whole story.
The K-girls and I learned the hard way never to answer a yes/no question with just “yes” or “no.” When we first met, I would ask a negative question: for example, “Don’t you love this cake?” They would answer “yes,” meaning “yes, you’re correct — I don’t love this cake.” I would interpret that as “yes, I find this cake delicious and I’d like some more.” And Julie or Joann would end up with a hunk of something gooey and chocolatey that they’d quite clearly indicated they didn’t want, and think I was either sadistic or very rude. (Or possibly both.) We now make a point of asking for clarity instead of assuming we understand.
Barna writes that
“people from different cultures inhabit different sensory realities. They see, hear, feel and smell only that which has some meaning or importance for them. They abstract whatever fits into their personal world of recognition and then interpret it through the frame of reference of their own culture.”
A classic example of nonverbal misinterpretation is the use of gestures. While preparing for a presentation on intercultural communication recently, I asked my daughters how they would indicate approval without using words. Elder Daughter flashed the “okay” sign (near right), and Younger Daughter gave the thumbs up (far right). These are perfectly acceptable gestures in our culture, but in many parts of the world, they’re considered obscene. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that injecting offensive body language into a conversation is not going to win you any friends in your new country.
Preconceptions and stereotypes
“Stereotypes are overgeneralized, secondhand beliefs that provide conceptual bases from which we make sense out of what goes on around us, whether or not they are accurate or fit the circumstances.”
Belonging to a culture provides us with a basic understanding of our world. In an alien culture, where familiar cues are absent, we tend to get anxious, and that anxiety may cause us to fill in the blanks — not always correctly. Once we have an idea in mind, we’re likely to accept evidence that supports it more readily than evidence that refutes it. The problem is that when stereotypes take hold, objectivity falls by the wayside. If we approach new people with our minds already made up, we close the door on effective communication. And we miss out on all the possibilities that encounter may have held.
Tendency to evaluate
It’s common to look at behaviour from our own cultural standpoint and judge it accordingly. Opening our minds and exercising a little empathy helps us assess things from the other person’s point of view. This doesn’t mean we have to reject our values and adopt those of the host culture. It just means that deciding what’s right and wrong based on the norms back home could get in the way of understanding the culture and its people.
Uncertainty leads to anxiety, and too much anxiety, Barna tells us, “requires some form of relief, which too often comes in the form of defenses, such as skewing of perceptions, withdrawal, or hostility.” I tend to withdraw in those situations — it feels as if my brain is overloaded and starts shutting down. I’m sure it comes across as disinterest or even arrogance, but it’s simply a defense mechanism, and it definitely puts a damper on the conversation.
That’s Barna’s take on the barriers to intercultural communication. What’s yours?